By Laura Moldoveanu
What distinguishes human rights issues from celebrations of culture? Is culture a sufficient excuse or justification for the mistreatment of minority groups? Recently, these two questions have gained substantial traction within the media as the 2022 FIFA World Cup approaches, being held this year in Qatar—which is where the controversy begins.
The decision to hold this year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar was deemed highly problematic by some due to Qatar’s record of human rights violations, as is demonstrated by the country’s criminalization of homosexuality, which can result in up to three years of prison in the country (Lewis 2022). In response, the “OneLove” campaign, an initative founded in the Netherlands to celebrate diversity within soccer communities, was due to take center stage (New York Post, 2022). To show their support, participants wear an armband featuring a multi-coloured heart to represent those belonging to all heritages, genders, and sexual identities. These armbands are meant to stand against discrimination and promote inclusion. The captains of seven countries competing were set to wear these armbands in solidarity, including England, Wales, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands (Ramsay and Nabbi, 2022). However, due to recent actions taken by FIFA itself, the initiative has been abandoned.
To discourage players from wearing OneLove armbands throughout the World Cup, FIFA declared that players found wearing said armbands would be given yellow cards and may face additional sanctions (Ramsay and Nabbi, 2022) as punishment. FIFA’s efforts seemingly succeeded, as all seven soccer federations backed down from the campaign. In a joint statement, they asserted that “[a]s national federations we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions, including bookings” (New York Post, 2022). Thus, the movement was quashed before it ever truly began. Even so, the situation introduces another issue regarding Qatar’s stance on LBGTQ+ rights: some fans feel unsafe travelling to Qatar, fearing for their safety (Lewis 2022).
The Secretary General of FIFA, Fatma Samoura, said in a statement, “[n]o matter your race, your religion, your social and sexual orientation, you are most welcome, and Qataris are ready to receive you with the best hospitality that you can imagine” (Lewis 2022). However, at the same time, a statement from Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC) reads, “[e]veryone is welcome in Qatar, but we are a conservative country and any public display of affection, regardless of orientation, is frowned upon. We simply ask for people to respect our culture” (Lewis 2022). In this case, then, culture seems to obfuscate matters of human rights, as the line between what is to be considered a human rights abuse and what is to be considered part of a separate country’s culture becomes blurred.
Teams were reportedly asked to “keep politics off the field” (New York Post, 2022). This raises the question: are human rights a strictly political issue, or do they supersede the realm of politics and possess a more universal significance? Should there be certain criteria necessary for selecting a country to host an international event as important as the World Cup? If so, how could such criteria be implemented while balancing the line between cultural relativism and cultural imperialism?
The Football Supporters’ Association, a representative body based in England and Wales, made a poignant statement encapsulating the situation. It reads, “[t]oday we feel contempt for an organisation that has shown its true values by giving the yellow card to players and the red card to tolerance… No country which falls short on LGBT+ rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights or any other universal human right should be given the honour of hosting a World Cup” (Thorogood, 2022). It is clear that this situation is bigger than Qatar or soccer alone. Human rights are a topic of contention all around the world. Countries must figure out how to toe the line between respecting different cultures and standing up against blatant human rights transgressions.
Associated Press. “FIFA Threats Force World Cup Teams to Abandon ‘OneLove’ Armband.” New York Post. New York Post, November 21, 2022. https://nypost.com/2022/11/21/fifa-threats-force-world-cup-teams-to-abandon-onelove-armband/ .
Lewis, Aimee. “’It’s Not Safe and It’s Not Right.’ Qatar Says All Are Welcome to the World Cup but Some LGBTQ Soccer Fans Are Staying Away.” CNN. Cable News Network, November 19, 2022. https://www.cnn.com/2022/11/19/football/qatar-world-cup-2022-lgbtq-rights-spt-intl/index.html.
Ramsay, George, and Zayn Nabbi. “England’s Harry Kane and Several Other European Captains Told Not to Wear ‘Onelove’ Armband at World Cup.” CNN. Cable News Network, November 22, 2022. https://www.cnn.com/2022/11/21/football/onelove-armband-qatar-2022-world-cup-spt-intl.
Thorogood, James. “Onelove Campaign Hit by Threat of FIFA Sanctions .” dw.com. Deutsche Welle, November 21, 2022. https://www.dw.com/en/world-cup-2022-onelove-campaign-hit-by-threat-of-fifa-sanctions/a-6381 8810.